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Ashtavakra Gita / BalsekarAG / A Duet of One


There is an ancient treatise in Sanskrit—some scholars consider it older than the Bhagavad Gita—called Ashtavakra Gita which consists of a dialogue between the sage Ashtavakra and his disciple King Janaka. This dialogue provides an extraordinary instance of the divine element in the relationship between a Self-realized guru and a superbly “ripe” disciple, i.e. one who is just waiting for that one quick spark of initiation into Truth that brings about sudden enlightenment. The Ashtavakra Gita at the same time provides an astonishingly direct, positive and unequivocal exegesis of the doctrine of non-duality, perhaps the best that has ever been done.

The Ashtavakra Gita is not nearly so well known as the Bhagavad Gita for the very reason that it is so specifically clear and unambiguous that it does not lend itself to the twists and turns required by commentators to justify their own philosophical pre-possessions or spiritual leanings. It contains superbly authoritative statements and clear assertions, so obviously based on intuitive experience and conviction as to deny and utterly negate any effort at exegetic ingenuity or intellectual acrobatics. It is a comparatively small treatise, compact and well-knit, containing about 300 verses of two lines, conveying the Truth, the whole Truth, and nothing but the Truth.

The sage Ashtavakra was so called because he had eight curves or deformities in his body. There are differing accounts concerning the deformities. One legend has it that when Ashtavakra was in his mother’s womb, his father used to recite the Vedas   every day, and Ashtavakra used to hear them so recited. The father, though a devout and pious man, was not a very scholarly man and thus used to commit a number of mistakes in reciting the Vedas; and Ashtavakra, already highly mature spiritually, could not bear to hear the Vedas so badly recited with the result that he could not help squirming in his mother’s womb and thereby becoming deformed in eight places.

There is another legend in the Mahabharata   that Ashtavakra’s father named, Kahor, used to recite the Vedas to his wife Sujata when their child was in Sujata’s womb. The child, one day, suddenly cried out “Through your grace, my dear father, I have learnt all the Vedas, but it is a pity that you commit several mistakes in your pronunciation.” Kahor, a great scholar (according to this version) and renowned for his learning, could not bear this insult from his unborn child, and cursed him that he would be born with eight curves in his body, and thus was born Ashtavakra, “eight-curved”.

The story continues that Ashtavakra’s father, Kahor, went to the court of King Janaka in order to obtain some favor, and was asked to debate on spiritual matters with the court scholar named Vandin who was the son of King Varuna. Kahor was defeated and as a result was banished to the netherworld as a priest at a sacrifice being performed by Varuna. When Ashtavakra was twelve years old, he heard of his father’s plight and went to the court of King Janaka in order to participate in a general debate where the most renowned scholars were invited. Ashtavakra found it difficult to get entrance into the court, but finally managed to do so. When the assembly saw Ashtavakra waddling into the court, all the assembled scholars began to laugh, even the kindly and pious King Janaka could not suppress a smile, but his amusement turned into astonishment when he saw that young Ashtavakra was laughing as loudly as anyone else. The king turned to the little deformed character and said to him, “Young man, I can understand why the others are laughing, but I cannot understand the cause of your laughter.” Ashtavakra suddenly became serious and told the king that he was laughing because he could not understand how the king could expect to find Truth in an assembly of cobblers. Now the king was angry, and gravely asked Ashtavakra to explain himself. The young lad answered equally gravely, “It is simple, your Majesty. All these honored guests are no better than cobblers because they cannot see beyond the skin. They cannot see the Presence within the physical body. If the earthen pot is broken, does the space within get broken? If the pot is misshapen, does the space within get misshapen? My body may be deformed but ‘I’ am infinite and limitless.” The king, already highly advanced spiritually, knew at once that Ashtavakra was a completely Self-realized soul, and the very next day, at his request, he was accepted by Ashtavakra as a disciple.

This story of Ashtavakra, like others concerning many other saints and sages and prophets is obviously not to be taken literally. It is not difficult to see the real significance of this story, as in the case of similar stories concerning other sages and prophets like the Buddha and Lao Tzu   and Zarathustra. In the case of Ashtavakra, the deformation of the body in eight places could have a reference to the eightfold path of Yoga. Ashtavakra avers that enlightenment does not really need any practices and disciplines of body or mind. Enlightenment can be sudden and can occur in a split-second as soon as there is clear realization (not a mere intellectual understanding) that there never has been any bondage for anyone, that one is always free, that freedom has always been one’s birthright. [BalsekarAG]